“Do we have to celebrate Valentine’s Day?” asked Teddy, our 14-year-old son. My immediate response was, “Yes!” But why? Superficially, it’s because I like the chocolates. But it’s more than that. I love telling the people I love what they mean to me. Still, Valentine’s Day is a quirky holiday. And it can feel especially weird when you’re not dating or married — regardless of whether you’re 14 or 40.
This day of romance doesn’t have a clear origin story and it’s hardly a holy day. What’s become the second-largest card-sending holiday has morphed into a high-pressure, get-a-date day. Understandably, lots of people shy away from celebrating it. Where did Valentine’s Day come from? And even more pressing, what should you do about it?
St. Valentine and his day
The history of Valentine’s Day is murky. A mythic figure, St. Valentine might be one of three martyrs with the same name. The first, a priest, defied Roman Emperor Claudius II by conducting marriage ceremonies for soldiers against the order of the emperor, who believed unmarried men made better soldiers. He was executed for his actions. The second, a bishop, was also killed at the order of Claudius II, who had him beheaded. The third, who helped mistreated Christians escape torture in Roman prisons, managed to send a love letter from prison before he died. Whatever the truth of Valentine’s identity, he was by the Middle Ages “one of the most popular saints in England and France.”
Valentine’s Day may have been an effort by the church to Christianize the pagan fertility festival of Lupercalia, a day marked by animal sacrifices and strips of animal skin that were dipped in blood, then paraded around town to gently slap young women and fields, presumably to make them more fertile. When Pope Gelasius outlawed it in the late 400s, February 14 was renamed St. Valentine’s Day. In the Middle Ages, the day was thought to mark the beginning of the birds’ mating season. How romantic.
Learning to celebrate
Whatever its true source, Valentine’s Day has always been a bit of a hodgepodge – a mix of pagan rituals and man-made traditions. Without the biblical warrant of Advent, Christmas, Lent or Easter, it can be hard to know what to do with it – whatever your relationship status.
Despite celebrating Valentine’s Day for the past 25 years with my husband, Steve, I’m still learning what it means to set aside my expectations and love others well. The more we’ve included others in our celebrations – our own children, singles, young couples, even older mentors – the more we’ve enjoyed the day.
Valentine’s Day used to stir self-pity in me. In that frame of mind, even a boyfriend couldn’t fix what ailed me. Far from leaving me in a position to love others, it left me sulking and angry. Beneath tears and sorrow was the belief that I deserved what other people were getting. It wasn’t just pride. I envied what they had.
That was no way to spend the day. But God was patient. I’ve written before about how He used people to speak truth to me, pulling me out of myself to focus on others.
A fundamental fear
Are you dreading waves of grief and sorrow come February 14? You’re not alone. In his book “40 Days of Love,” Paul David Tripp writes,
In some way, every person who has ever lived is on a hunt for love and scared to death that he won’t find it. That’s why a good love story is always so popular.
Isn’t it amazing that…[this] fundamental fear is addressed and solved by the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ? …the gospel is the world’s best love story. It is a story of a God of love who places his love on people who do not deserve his love. This God sends the Son of his love to make a sacrifice of love so that his children can be welcomed into his arms of love and become a community of love that takes his love to those in desperate need of that love.
Attraction and romance – the focus of Valentine’s Day – aren’t bad. They’re one exciting aspect of moving toward marriage. And it’s not wrong to want them. But they’re not ultimate. They’re not what love is. Love seeks to serve others, to observe and meet needs, to believe the best, and to care for those God places in our lives. When you look at it this way, Valentine’s Day isn’t about love at all. Not really. One glance at the card aisle is enough to see that Valentine’s Day is about feelings – your feelings. It’s about making your romantic affections known and hoping the person you’re telling will reciprocate. In short, it’s all about you.
When I was sitting in self-pity over my lack of a boyfriend, I was too self-focused to think creatively about how I could invest in my friends at school and my family back home. I missed key opportunities to serve others, and I made myself fairly unlovely. Tripp says, “We can know the true joys of human love only if love for God first rules our hearts.” He goes on to say,
Sin does make us focus on us too much. …Sin does cause us to crave the love of people more than we celebrate the eternal love of God. Only when we are progressively freed from our bondage to ourselves do we come to love God as we should; and as we love God as we should, we love people in the way that God has designed.
God is so good to not leave us stuck in self-focus. “God bestows on us his eternal transforming love,” Tripp says, “so that by means of that love we will become people who find our rest in his love, and because we do, we are then able to love others well.” God calls us to receive His love, repent for the times we’ve despaired of His goodness, and trust that He really is all powerful, all-wise, and all-loving. He knows what is best for each of his children, and he has the power to accomplish his purpose for us (Isaiah 46:8-10). Nothing is beyond his ability (Jeremiah 32:17).
Whether you’re someone’s sweetheart or still hoping to be, if you belong to God through faith in Christ, you are already perfectly loved by the God whose character is love.
What love is
How God defines love is a far cry from definitions so popular in our day. But God has not asked us to define terms for ourselves. He has revealed himself in His Word and has told us what love is:
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no account of wrongs. Love takes no pleasure in evil, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. (1 Corinthians 13:4-7)
You don’t have to be dating to focus on love this Valentine’s Day. There’s enough in this passage to keep you busy loving the people God has placed in your life right now.
True love transcends February 14th. John wrote, “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another” (1 John 4:10-11, emphasis added).
Love every day
It’s OK to celebrate Valentine’s Day — or not. The key is to derive your worth not from your dating status, but from who you are in Christ Jesus. Receive the infinite love of God, and fight bitterness and despair by entrusting yourself to God who is all-wise, all-powerful, and all-good. He loves you infinitely, knows what’s best for you, and has the power to accomplish all He has purposed for you, for your good and His glory. That includes giving you the grace for whatever He provides, or doesn’t, each day.
Growing to trust His love is the key to a good Valentine’s Day — and every day.
Copyright 2023 Candice Watters. All rights reserved.